Wednesday, October 26, 2011

beauty parlour

I got a haircut yesterday. I just walked into a salon a few blocks from my house. There was a woman getting a manicure, another women having her hair blow-dried (a blower they call it-- one of my favourite Anglicisms) and a local morning show was on the TV in the corner. It was noisy and gossipy and it made me (awkward and unkempt) as uncomfortable as it usually does. The woman who cut my hair did a great job. I left relieved and thinking about beauty.

When I was nineteen I had a beauty epiphany. I was treeplanting at the time. This means I was living in a tent, in a camp, in the remote wilds of Canada. Showers, when they were working, were makeshift and neither private, nor hot. The only mirror I saw was on the truck. There was no place for a beauty regime in this setting. Yet the women were beautiful, really beautiful. This of course is obvious to me now, we were twenty and fit and tan--it's kind of what beauty is in our society. But at the time I was so surprised.

I started wearing make-up as a teenager and had just assumed it was necessary to look good. I really didn't think I could go out in public without make-up. I remember one morning when I was in high school, I had slept in, and had to go to school without make-up. I was so uncomfortable and embarrassed all day. That's why seeing beauty without make-up in a treeplanting camp was an epiphany. It changed my life: I stopped wearing make-up. I still don't wear much make-up (if any). That is not to say I don't care about my appearance, I just don't see the need to spend a lot of time on it. I am also not a frequent visitor to the beauty salon. Actually I'm the opposite.

I get a hair cut a couple of times a year. Sometimes I cut it myself. In Panama there are beauty salons every couple of blocks. It is not uncommon for a Panamanian woman to have regular weekly visit to the salon. Salons here are busy places, full of women getting their regular manicure or straightening. While I am pretty secure about my appearance, this aspect of Panamanian culture unnerves me. I speak Spanish passably well, but I don't speak beauty parlour at all. It's a good thing that the women who work in salons here are so gracious and unflappable, or I would never be brave enough to get my hair cut.

I admire Panamanian women. They are so often impeccable, matching everything, jewelry and heels. It honestly impresses me. But it is also very foreign to me. My daughter skinned her knee at school the other day and the teacher told me it would fine and that she would stil be able to be Miss Universe. Weird right? and weirder, it's not the first time someone said that to me. Last year when she cut her leg someone said the same thing. A Miss Universe title is about the last thing I would want for my daughters. But beauty is valued here in a way I'm not used to (and that totally baffles me) and this is why I'm so uncomfortable in the beauty salon. It is unknown territory.

I'm probably going to have to learn to speak beauty parlour.


  1. I wonder now if this is true for all of Latin America, because El Salvador is exactly the same. I am not a big fan of make up and most of the time pull my hair up with a clip without even brushing it first, but if you leave the house you must be impeccable head to toe. It has taken me a long time to get used to that.

  2. I know right! Sometimes I feel like such a sweaty slob.